Driver savors moment, with crew chief by his side
There was no Chad Knaus on the pit box. There was no little Genevieve running around. There were no championship trophies on the mantle. The atmosphere surrounding Jimmie Johnson’s first victory in the Daytona 500 was very different from the one that encompassed his second triumph Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
Seven years ago on race day, the Hendrick Motorsports driver had been married to wife Chandra for only 14 months. Knaus, crew chief on the No. 48 team, had been banished from Speedweeks after front-row qualifying day because the rear window on his car had failed inspection. And despite a pile of race victories to his credit, Johnson himself had not yet been able to take that first step down the path to greatness.
That 2006 Daytona 500 crown changed it all, opening the door to an unprecedented run of consecutive championships in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series that would kick off that very same year. Looking back, though, Johnson didn’t enjoy it nearly as much, and with good reason. There was still so much pressure, so much left to prove. And there weren’t as many people in which to share the moment.
"We also felt like we were riding a great wave from the conclusion of last year's season."
-- Jimmie Johnson
“In ’06, it just seemed to go by so quickly,” Johnson said Tuesday in a teleconference with reporters. “And I maybe didn’t savor the moment as long as I did this time. And I didn’t have my daughter at this point in time, too. To watch her soak it up, to have that moment with Chani and Evie was very special for me. I’ve seen Rick Hendrick happy before in Victory Lane, but he had a glow to him like I hadn’t seen in a long, long time. So I was pleased to do that. The whole team is fired up from it.”
It was all evident in the post-race scene, which included little Evie running up and down the ramp that led to the media center stage where her father was answering questions, and Knaus and the team taking part in an impromptu dance number in the tri-oval grass many hours later. The always-focused crew chief allowed himself to let loose a little, understandable given that the last time his group had won the Great American Race, he watched it on television while former team engineer Darian Grubb -- now a championship-winning crew chief in his own right -- served in his stead.
“I eat, sleep and breathe 48,” Knaus said after the race. “Anytime that I'm taken away from that race car, I'm pretty sad. But when those guys were able to come down here and win the Daytona 500 in 2006 in my absence, I think that really solidified the strength of the 48 car. Was I here? No. Was I here in spirit? Most definitely. I couldn't have been prouder of the group of guys we had there. To finally be able to come down here and win and be a part of this is definitely a huge dream come true. It's great. It's a lot of fun. It's a great experience. I just couldn't be prouder of everybody involved.”
It had been a long-stated goal of Johnson’s to win another Daytona 500 with his crew chief on the scene, an aspiration that became reality when he held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap. There were also other incentives -- building momentum off last year’s third-place points finish, winning the first race in NASCAR’s more brand-identifiable Generation-6 race car, and soaking in the sheer magnitude of the sport’s grandest event.
“I think there was a big push to be the team and driver to win this first Gen‑6 race,” Johnson said. “We also felt like we were riding a great wave from the conclusion of last year's season. There was just a buzz in the air, a feeling pre-race. We just felt it was going to be a race that was highly viewed. It kind of all played into it. Chad did not experience those things in ’06, experience the victory celebration. So to have him there, see the smile on his face, soak it in, it's something that all racers dream of. They want to win the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500. To be able to pull that off a second time, to have Chad there, really share those emotions, experience those emotions, was key.”
The post-race media tour, Johnson said, reminded him of similar experiences following championship campaigns. Now the focus turns to Phoenix International Raceway, where Johnson will open his weekend piloting JR Motorsports’ No. 5 car in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and where he’ll try to win for a fifth time at the Sprint Cup level. It’s all a stark contrast from this time last season, when he went to Arizona after crashing out of the Daytona 500, and with a cloud hanging over his race team because of a penalty that was eventually amended upon appeal.
That issue, which stemmed from a technical violation, “impacted the first quarter of the year for us,” Johnson said. “… It (was) such a distraction, I can’t even tell you.”
This year, there are no such diversions -- only momentum and confidence. After all, the driver known as “Five-Time” last won the Daytona 500 before he had earned that nickname. And everyone knows what happened next.
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